Victim or Thief?


It’s likely that many families have some bits of family history that they might not be proud of. After decades pass, the details become blurred and it becomes harder to find the truth of the matter.

In our family, the story tells of someone going missing along with the payroll. Later he reappears. Was our great-grandfather a thief? The family story says he was a victim of foul play.

Samuel Newton McGhee and son Elmer in Tyro KS

Samuel McGhee holding his son Elmer (born in 1910). Their home in Tyro, Kansas.

His Daughter’s Memories of the Time

Fortunately, we have some first-hand details of the story from his daughter. Here are Bertha McGhee’s memories of her papa.

 “The summer of 1919 when I was 16, Papa disappeared and we later learned he’d been robbed, beaten–apparently left for dead– only to regain consciousness suffering from amnesia.   Somehow he made his way to Arkansas to his old home and when he saw his brother his memory came back and he returned home. He’d been gone almost 3 months.

I was at home the day he got there.   Mama met him at the gate.   He picked her up
and carried her back to the porch where he sat in the rocker and just held her, it seemed an eternity before he looked up to greet grandma, Ethel and me.”

My Research on That Time

Curiously, there were no reports on missing persons or missing payrolls in the newspapers in Montgomery County, Kansas in 1919. I searched by name and also used keywords like missing person, payroll, mystery.

I did find some 1919 tidbits to give us some background.

  • “Sam McGhee had the misfortune last week to have one of his horses drop dead while hauling shale. The animal dropped dead just after turning onto Main Street with the load.” (Coffeyville Daily Journal, Coffeyville, Kansas, 14 Feb 1919, Fri • Page 4)
  • His eldest son, Clarence, returned with the troops from serving in France (WWI). Mid-May 1919.
  • S. N. McGhee, patrolman $105.87 was included in a list of men receiving pay for road work. Roy McGhee was paid $30 for road construction work. (South Kansas Tribune, Independence, Kansas, 10 Sep 1919, Wed • Page 6)
  • Under “Real Estate Transfers,” I found S. N. Mcghee again. “C. H. Pocock to S. N. McGhee, lts 1. 2, bk 2, West Side add., Tyro; $50. H. E. Dunbar to S. N. McGhee, lts 5, 6, bk 2, West Side add., Tyro; $30.” I’m interpreting these to mean Sam bought some land in Tyro from Pocock and Dunbar. (South Kansas Tribune, Independence, Kansas, 24 Dec 1919, Wed • Page 2)

My mother said her Uncle Roy placed ads in the newspapers and even consulted a psychic, trying to find his missing father. I didn’t find those.

I wondered if Bertha might be wrong on the year. What if it happened in 1918 instead of 1919? Then Clarence would have been away in France which would explain why a younger son, Roy, was placing the ads. In September 1918, Samuel McGhee registered for the draft but would have been too old to serve at the age of 42. He listed his job as “working in a store” in Tyro and his employer was John Albert Knotts.

There’s nothing to substantiate Samuel Newton McGhee’s relationship to a missing payroll in 1919. I find it hard to even consider that the hardworking family man that he was would have been a thief. His daughter describes him as having “smiling blue eyes” and being a founding member of their church. I’m guessing that his story of being beaten and having amnesia was accepted in the community because in September of 1919, he’s getting hired to do road work for the county. 

Sam & Matilda McGhee 1903, Clarence 7;Jesse 5; Roy 2; Bertha baby

Sam & Matilda 1903, with their children Clarence 7; Jesse 5; Roy 2; baby Bertha.

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